Karl Karle's Diary

Karl Karle spent most of the First World War in internment. His first notebook deals with his early experience of internment in Lancaster in September 1914, his release in December of that year, the resumption of his life as a civilian, and the impact of the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. The second notebook picks up the story when he was already interned in Stobs. It covers life in the camp, Christmas, his transfer to Knockaloe in July 1916, and the process of adjustment after his arrival. The third and fourth notebooks deal with the rest of the war and end rather abruptly after it is over. Karl’s diary is important because it offers insights into camp life and the difficulties which people in internment faced as the war drew to a close.

At the time when he was first interned, Karl had already been living in Britain for about ten years. His initial experience of internment clearly came as a shock, compounded by the fact that the state was obviously unprepared for dealing with the number of people involved. This had a long-term impact on his morale and resulted in a resentment of the power which the state had over him. He also became sceptical about the way that events were reported in the newspapers. This would further develop in the course of the war. Thanks to the efforts of his wife he was released on bail and tried to run his butcher’s business as before, with some success, but events over which he had no control resulted in him being interned once again – in Stobs.

The Stobsiade was a censored newspaper which was sent to Germany and sold there. As a result certain things were not mentioned, and others were suppressed. Karl’s account is not constrained in this way, so we learn that, for example, the preparations for Christmas 1915 were less than optimal. We also learn that the prisoners, reading between the lines, concluded that the Battle of Jutland had been a great German victory and celebrated accordingly. The death of General Kitchener as a result of the sinking of HMS Hampshire, which happened soon after, resulted in people who had been the Camp Commander’s favourites getting drunk and disgracing themselves. People in the camp had learned to read the British newspapers which they received “against the grain”, and were suitably cynical about the propaganda which they found in them.

The transfer of all the civilian prisoners from Stobs to Knockaloe was an event of great importance to Karl, and he provides a detailed account of how it took place. After having been very constrained, the experience of the move, with all of its upheaval and change must have had a powerful effect on all those involved. Having travelled through Scotland without difficulty, they encountered extreme abuse in England – and reciprocated as far as possible! The environment in Knockaloe was less friendly than in Stobs, but conditions were not bad to start with.

Just as in Stobs, the prospect of prisoner exchange resulted in considerable upheaval in Knockaloe, awakening hope in many prisoners, coupled with frustration and anxiety. Food, and later heating became a problem. Towards the end of Karl’s account, when dealing with 1918, it becomes increasingly concerned with the progress of the war and the military situation. It is clear that there was a great deal of tension and conflict between the prisoners in Knockaloe at this time – just as there was in Stobs, and attempts to interpret the British newspapers from a German perspective proved very difficult. The use of propaganda in these newspapers was very obvious to the German prisoners, but it is also clear in reading his account that Karl was in denial of the fact that Germany was losing the war. Although the prisoners in Knockaloe were interned civilians, while those remaining in Stobs were captured military personnel, their reactions, and their experience of stress seem very similar. There can be no doubt of the harmful effect that incarceration had on all the interned prisoners, and Karl’s perplexed account of the closing events of the war, to the almost complete exclusion of what was happening in the camp illustrates how he and his fellow-prisoners became increasingly oppressed by events which they could not understand.

Translator’s Note: In the text the words England and English are used where in some cases it would be more natural to use Britain and British in translation. For reasons of consistency they have not been changed.